Julia Margaret Cameron

 

JuliaCameronPriyanka Chharia takes you back to the start, and revisits the fascinating fairy tale that was Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

 

Julia was known to photograph her family and friends dressed as historical characters from the past. This image is a portrayal of Beatrice, the protagonist from Percy Shelly’s play The Cenci.

Julia was known to photograph her family and friends dressed as historical characters from the past. This image is a portrayal of Beatrice, the protagonist from Percy Shelly’s play The Cenci.

Accidents can be beautiful. In fact, photography is perhaps one of the most beautiful accidents that ever happened to me. I still remember the first time that I noticed Julia Margaret Cameron’s work. Interestingly, it was just another serendipitous accident as well. In an instant, I had travelled back to the Victorian era. I was enamoured by the subdued sepia tones of her images. And, in this age of digital reproductions and instant uploads… I felt that this was something unique. In fact, it seemed to me that her photographs, which reeled from an innocent imperfection, were accidents too. And, yes… they were beautiful.

16-year-old Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry was photographed by Julia shortly after her marriage in 1864.

16-year-old Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry was photographed by Julia shortly after her marriage in 1864.

The Gift
For Julia Margaret Cameron, photography was literally a gift. It was at the age of 48 when she was presented a camera by her daughter, as a means to curb her loneliness. “It may amuse you, mother; to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater,” said the accompanying note from her daughter.

Julia drew heavily from biblical subject matter, and often photographed young children as angels. This image is titled I Wait and is a portrait of her niece Rachel Gurney.

Julia drew heavily from biblical subject matter, and often photographed young children as angels. This image is titled I Wait and is a portrait of her niece Rachel Gurney.

The Beginning
As a beginner, Julia learnt how to photograph simply because of the perseverance of her own efforts. She was born in Kolkata, and lived in India for a long time, before she eventually moved to the United Kingdom in 1948. With time, the camera was no longer just a means of amusement for her, and became much more than a forthright bequest. She began photographing at home. While she transformed her hen house into a studio, she used the coal bin as a darkroom. In a letter to scientist and friend Sir John Herschel in 1864, Julia described her initial struggle, and wrote, “At the beginning of this year, I took up photography, and set to work alone and unassisted. I felt my way literally in the dark through endless failures, and last came endless successes!”

Julia’s images draw from myths and folklore, and attach a sense of tragedy and loss with women.

Julia’s images draw from myths and folklore, and attach a sense of tragedy and loss with women.

The Portraitist
Julia Margaret Cameron marked the beginning of portrait photography, as we know it today. In more ways than one, she was the predecessor to photographers such as Richard Avedon and Steve McCurry, who came to embody the art of portraiture in photography. In fact, she was the first one to introduce the technique of soft-focus images. Her slightly out-of-focus portraits were made from collodion glass plate negatives, and were considered to be a mistake by her peers.However, Julia was more of an imagemaker, than a mere documentarist. Quite often, she would scrape away segments of collodion from the final print,or draw with ink on the same. She did not follow the traditional methods of making prints, and experimented in a number of ways, such that each of her images was unlike the other.

Scientist Sir John Herschel was Julia’s lifelong friend and the inventor of the cyanotype print. The unending exchanges on photography between the two proved to be the principle source of learning for Julia.

Scientist Sir John Herschel was Julia’s lifelong friend and the inventor of the cyanotype print. The unending exchanges on photography between the two proved to be the principle source of learning for Julia.

‘‘The camera has become to me, a living thing, with voice, memory and a creative vigour.”

Julia strived to capture the essence of an individual in her portrait. This image is of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that Julia made during her time in England.

Julia strived to capture the essence of an individual in her portrait. This image is of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that Julia made during her time in England.

The Hostess
Julia’s residence in South East England was frequented by illustrious Victorian personalities, such as scientists Charles Darwin and Thomas Carlyle. She lived next door to poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and upon his request, photographed for his book called Idylls of the King (1856–1885). Virginia Woolf, Julia’s niece and noted writer, penned down the life and times of her aunt in a play called Freshwater (1929). According to the writer, Julia and her circle of “fair women and famous men” were a group of eccentric, yet creative artists. In fact, Julia’s amicable persona pushed her forward as a photographer. She would often make each of her friends and acquaintances pose for hours on end.

Women and children are repetitive themes in Julia’s work. This portrait is of a local woman from Freshwater, England.

Women and children are repetitive themes in Julia’s work. This portrait is of a local woman from Freshwater, England.

“From the first moment, I handled my lens with a tender ardour.”

Her namesake, niece and mother of Virginia Woolf; Julia Jackson was Cameron’s favourite subject to photograph.

Her namesake, niece and mother of Virginia Woolf; Julia Jackson was Cameron’s favourite subject to photograph.

“What is focus, and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”

This portrait of Annie Philpot was described by Julia as her “first success in photography”.

This portrait of AnniePhilpot was describedby Julia as her “first success in photography”.

The Legend
Julia Margaret Cameron was the most prominent woman photographer of the 19th century. However, like most artists, Julia’s photography was not understood during her time. She made more than 1000 photographs, before she eventually moved to Sri Lanka.

This image of Alice Lidell, the inspiration behind Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, is perhaps the only portrait of her as a young woman.

This image of Alice Lidell, the inspiration behind Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, is perhaps the only portrait of her as a young woman.

The Question
According to me, Julia is the Louisa May Alcott of photography. While Alcott is best remembered for Little Women (1868), her other publications under the pen name of A M Barnard, show a far more complex side of the artist. Similarly, as a photographer, Julia touched upon a number of themes apart from angelic mothers and children. Some of her portraits of semi-clad children are held evocative by many. In fact, Julia’s images echo in the works of photographers such as Sally Mann, and the inciting portraits of her children. In more ways than one, Julia Margaret Cameron breaks the image of a typical Victorian woman. Even as some might find her work dated and non-relatable, I feel that she is very much a woman of the present; rather than the past.

Tags: Great Masters, Julia Margaret Cameron, Perspectives, Priyanka Chhari, Women, women photographers